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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide

Special Format Maps

The Geography and Map Division contains a wide assortment of materials, the many varieties of which can be found on other pages of this guide. This page is set aside for map collections that are unique either in their use for research or their physical format.

Fire Insurance/Cadastral Maps

Sanborn map of Los Angeles, California, from 1919, showing the location of the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation Studio
Sanborn Map Company. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, showing the location of the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation Studio. 1919. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Cartographic materials that document the development and growth of urban America are extensive and unequaled. Through copyright deposits, government transfers, and exchanges, the division has acquired the nation's foremost collection of city maps issued by fire insurance companies and underwriters. Developed in London in the 1790s and first published in the United States by the Jefferson Insurance Company of New York City in the 1850s, fire insurance maps are large-scale maps designed to provide insurance underwriters with detailed information concerning fire risks for individual residential and commercial properties. They depict street patterns, water systems, lot lines, individual buildings and construction material. Their historical value is enhanced by updated editions.

By far, the largest number of fire insurance maps is found in the Sanborn Map Company Collection which contains 600,000 sheets representing 12,000 American cities dated from 1876 to the 1970s. The bulk of these maps were deposited by the company as copyright deposits, but about one-third were transferred from the Commerce Department's Bureau of the Census in 1967, which originally purchased the maps at a cost of one-half million dollars. The Census Bureau maps contain paste-on correction sheets to reflect changes such as the construction or demolition of individual buildings. Other fire insurance holdings include the work of H. Bennett, the Charles E. Goad Company, Ernest Hexamer, the Minnesota and Dakota Fire Underwriters Company, Charles Rascher, and Alphonso Whipple. All of these companies were eventually absorbed by Sanborn, Inc.

Wall Maps

Ignazio Villa. Nuovo planisferio cosmografico orografico universale ed orologico mondiale per uso di generale istruzione. 1858. Geography and Map Division.
Ignazio Villa. Nuovo planisferio cosmografico orografico universale ed orologico mondiale per uso di generale istruzione. 1858. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

While the Geography and Map Division's special collections focus primarily on North America, coverage is worldwide. Particularly noteworthy is a small but representative collection of large seventeenth-century decorative wall maps of the world that were produced by leading Dutch, French, and Italian publishing houses to meet the growing demand for attractive wall hangings by an emerging middle class. Due to their size, few wall maps have survived the ravages of time. Of the 125 recorded copies, the division has eighteen. Beginning in 1608, the Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu first published a set of separate wall maps of the four continents. Through the generosity of Hans P. Kraus, the division has copies of African, Asian, and European maps reprinted by the Visscher firm about 1657. The Kraus gift also included a rare set of four continental maps and a map of the world published by the Joachim Ottens publishing house in Amsterdam dedicated to William and Mary, who reigned from 1689 to 1702. Only one other set of these five maps preserved together is known. In addition, the wall map collection includes a set of Blaeu's 1608 four continental maps reissued in Bologna in 1673 by Pietro Todeschi, a noted engraver of perspective views; an unrecorded French edition of Blaeu's wall map of Africa, published by Hubert Jaillot in 1669; and a reengraving in Italy by Guiseppe Longhi and Carlo Scotti about 1680 of the first edition of Frederik de Wit's giant wall map of the world, originally published in Amsterdam in 1660.

Landform Maps

One of the notable contributions of American cartography was the development of the physiographic diagram or landform map. Relevant collections are those of the noted geomorphologist and teacher William Morris Davis, whose work with the block diagram technique laid the foundation for this form of cartography; Guy-Harold Smith; Erwin Raisz; Richard Edes Harrison, who began his career in journalistic cartography as a member of the staff of Fortune magazine in the 1930s where he developed innovative and distinctive perspective maps and landform maps that provided a generation of World War II readers with an image of the earth; Hal Shelton, whose work is found in the H. M. Gousha Collection; and Theodore R. Miller.

H.M. Gousha Company and the U.S. Forest Service. National forests in the south. 1974. Geography and Map Division.
H.M. Gousha Company and the U.S. Forest Service. National forests in the south. 1974. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Panoramic Maps

C.J. Dyer, W. Byrnes Litho., Schmidt, Label & Litho. Co. Bird's eye view of Phoenix, Maricopa Co., Arizona. 1885. Geography and Map Division.
C.J. Dyer, W. Byrnes Litho., Schmidt, Label & Litho. Co. Bird's eye view of Phoenix, Maricopa Co., Arizona. 1885. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The Geography and Map Division has extensive holdings of panoramic maps of North American cities and towns. Also known as bird's-eye views, perspective maps, or panoramic views, these maps provide unique images of cities as viewed at an oblique angle from an elevation of 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Prepared by artist-cartographers who walked the streets sketching buildings and major landscape features, they were used to promote a city's commercial and residential potential. Although the division has more than 1,800 panoramic views, they continue to be acquired. Dating from 1837 to the 1920s, panoramic views depict a wide variety of urban features such as streets, hotels, houses, mills and factories, court houses, schools and colleges, railway depots and round-houses, fair grounds, cemeteries, canals, bridges, gas works, ferries, race courses, lumber yards, hospitals, banks, and churches. Many include insets of architectural renderings of private homes, commercial and public establishments, and industrial plants. Two special collections particularly rich for the study of small town America during the Victorian Age are those of Albert Ruger, a Prussian immigrant, who began drawing views while serving with the Ohio Volunteers during the Civil War, and Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler whose career spanned almost the entire era, from 1870 to 1922. The division has 224 of the 301 separate views attributed to Fowler, covering eighteen states and Canada. More than one hundred views were presented to the division from 1970 to 1971 by the artist's daughter-in-law, Mrs. T. B. Fowler, and her family. Other cartographic-artists and panoramic publishers represented in the collections are Oakley H. Bailey, Lucien R. Burleigh, Augustus Koch, and Henry Wellge.

Cloth Maps

Throughout history, maps have been drawn or printed on a variety of surfaces including paper, stone, metal, wood, skin, horn, and cloth. With the development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, however, paper became and has remained the dominant printing medium. Because of the attractiveness and durability of cloth, however, maps have been published on this material since the eighteenth century as souvenirs, as travelers' aids, and for military purposes. The Cloth Map Collection includes numerous specimens of maps printed on cloth dating from the 1790s. The earliest is a "bandanna" map depicting the plan for Washington, D.C., dated about 1793. Another fascinating early cloth map depicts the decisive battle of Waterloo, Belgium, fought June 18, 1815; it was issued shortly after the battle to commemorate the victory of the Duke of Wellington over Napoleon Bonaparte.

The largest collection of cloth maps was acquired in 1983 from the British Ministry of Defense's Mapping and Charting Establishment through the assistance of Ian Mumford, then the British Liaison Officer assigned to the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency. It consists of some sixty escape and evasion maps and air-sea rescue charts produced during World War II under the direction of the British War Office's Secret Intelligence Service, M19 for both the European and Far East theaters. This section was established on December 23, 1939, to aid in the escape and safe return to the United Kingdom of prisoners of war and men lost as sea. A set of almost fifty U.S. Army Air Force "Bailout" or "Survival Maps," issued by the Army Map Service, primarily for the Far East, are also on file. A third example of World War II cloth maps is a set of bombing target maps of cities and ports in England issued by the German General Staff, June to October 1941.

Mapmaking Collections

An excellent primary source for the study of map design in North America is a collection of competition drawings submitted to the annual American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) Map Design Competition. Open to all map makers in the United States and Canada, the competition was sponsored by ACSM to promote concern for map design and to recognize significant design advances in cartography. Winning entries through 1996 were transferred to the Geography and Map Division for addition to the permanent map collections of the Library of Congress.

While examples of map printing artifacts are scarce, and seldom found in collections because of their vulnerability or value, the division has acquired representative examples of copper engraving plates, lithographic stones, and woodblocks in order to document the development of map printing. These are filed in the Printing Technology Collection. The scribing technique is illustrated by the recently acquired American Automobile Association Collection, which contains sixty-four printing plates for the AAA road map of Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Delaware.